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Ava DuVernay’s series on the Central Park Five is must-see TV

The drama about the wrongfully convicted men has been Netflix’s most-watched series since its May 31 premiere, and deservedly so.

Director Ava DuVernay with the Central Park Five (from left): Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam at the premiere of “When They See Us” at the Apollo Theater in New York.
Director Ava DuVernay with the Central Park Five (from left): Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam at the premiere of “When They See Us” at the Apollo Theater in New York.
AP

If you haven’t yet seen “When They See Us,” please make a point of seeing it.

The four-part series is about the four African Americans and one Latino convicted of the rape and brutal beating of a jogger in Central Park 30 years ago.

This series has sparked a national conversation on a topic that continues to drive a wedge between races.

I had every intention of catching the Toronto Raptors-Golden State Warriors showdown Thursday night, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the Netflix series.

DuVernay’s drama about the wrongfully convicted men has been Netflix’s most-watched series since its May 31 premiere, according to the streaming service.

Known infamously as the Central Park Five, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise were exonerated in 2002 after they had served between six and seven years for the heinous crime.

Wise, who was tried as an adult, served 12 years.

The crime and the stories reporting on it gave birth to the term “wilding” and played on fears that black and brown teens were running rampant in the streets.

DuVernay dug beneath that stereotype to show the real pain involved when police — faced with a horrific crime — arbitrarily round up suspects based on race and their own biases.

This is not the first time a filmmaker has shined a spotlight on this travesty. In 2012, Sarah Burns and her father, the acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, produced a PBS documentary about the case.

Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars but pondered the possibility law enforcement did not intentionally railroad the teens. He wrote: “ ‘Central Park Five’ unfortunately sidesteps part of its story. The five young men … were indeed in Central Park that night, part of a larger group of perhaps 30. Members of that group, some as young as 15, may have been responsible for other attacks. Were they caught up in a mob mentality?”

But DuVernay does not sidestep. She highlights the rush of that summer night, when each teenager made the life-altering decision to join a large crowd causing havoc in Central Park.

They shouldn’t have been there.

We know they shouldn’t have been there.

But that didn’t give police the right to manipulate, coerce and smack a confession of rape out of them.

DuVernay takes us inside a police precinct where gathering evidence came second to gathering suspects.

That scene will be all too familiar to young men of color and their parents.

It made me even sadder to think that, while the injustice of the Central Park Five is over, what about other young black men who might be suffering in America’s prisons under similar circumstances?

What happened to the teens who didn’t have someone determined to get them out of a tangled web of lies?

Although wrongfully convicted, these young men had an X on their backs after leaving prison.

DuVernay let us see what that really looks like. Despite being innocent, they were denied a future — with no stable employment, no hope for a loving relationship, no opportunity even to dream.

For Wise, who was sent to an adult prison, it also meant enduring brutal beatings, solitary confinement and unspeakable treatment at the hands of sadistic prisoners and guards.

The police behavior portrayed in the film seemed all too familiar and left me asking what more can be done to prevent such things from happening again.

After all, former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his crew of detectives tortured false confessions out of hundreds of black men here.

Yet Linda Fairstein, who oversaw the prosecution of the Central Park case, would have us believe that DuVernay is just making stuff up.

In an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal, Fairstein, who’s now a crime novelist, said the series is so “full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.”

But since “When They See Us” premiered, Fairstein has been dropped by ICM Partners, her Hollywood literary agency.

And Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor in the jogger case, has resigned as a lecturer at Columbia Law School, citing a “desire not to draw unwanted attention to her employers.”

Despite the uproar over the series, Fairstein remains defiant.

“Ms. DuVernay does not define me, and her film does not speak the truth,” declared Fairstein.

But DuVernay’s superb storytelling and the real-life exonerations of five innocent men leave Fairstein with a badly tarnished legacy.